The Science Behind Why We Read


I love reading, and I can give you a few reasons why: I like the escape, it’s entertaining and relaxing and educational all at the same time, I get to experience things I perhaps would never have a chance to do otherwise. There are loads of reasons, but none of them really get to the heart of the matter, the why of it or what that thing is that drives us to pick up a book, let go of ourselves, and vanish into someone else’s life for a few hours. Is it really just a hobby, something we go back to again and again because it’s familiar and pleasant? Or could it be something more?

Galileo once said that reading is a superhuman power. It’s a way to connect with5331608922_471708e55f_b people you’ve never met, and writing allows you to talk to people who haven’t even been born[1]. George Orwell said that reading gives “our souls a chance to luxuriate”[2], and Marcel Proust said, “there are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with our favourite book”[3]. Reading means something to everyone and that meaning varies from person to person, but researchers have shown that there is actually a scientific reason behind why we read. There is something in us that drives us to pick up that book.


One of the things that our brains like to do is visualise[4] (they’re actually very creative things, brains), and there is little better to aid visualisation that reading. Watching a film or TV series doesn’t work in the same way, because the brain isn’t required to work – or at least, not so much. The visualisation has already been done for you. Books, on the other hand, are an amalgamation of 26 letters and a bunch of punctuation marks. Granted, they are quite clever amalgamations and they certainly direct you, but ultimately, it’s you and your brain that turns those letters into real, living images in your head. Reading triggers complex visualisations, and that makes your brain very happy indeed.


It’s all so real

It gets even better than that. You know those times that you feel like you’re really there, going along on that journey or visiting that place with the characters in a book? When everything is just so real that it takes your breath away and makes you forgot about your own existence entirely? That’s because your brain experiences what you’re reading in the same way that it experiences the real thing. Studies have shown that the parts of the brain that are stimulated when reading about something are the very same parts that are stimulated when experiencing it[5] – so it doesn’t just feel real, but for you, it is real.


White matter and empathy

cactus-1059633_960_720The science doesn’t stop there either. A Carnegie Mellon study showed that reading actually increases white matter in the language area of the brain – and it’s this increase that leaves readers less likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s as they grow older[6]. It keeps the brain sharp and fighting fit, and it means that reading really is brain food at its best. Psychologists at Washington University, moreover, discovered that reading helps people to develop empathy as it makes them more alert to the inner lives of others. This, they claim, can explain why introverts are so often bookworms too – not only are they experiencing the joys of reading but they are inadvertently developing their social skills at the same time.

 So why do we read? Because we need to, that’s why!

In other news, I did my first ever Facebook Live for Bookshop Bistro today. Why not pop along to the group and tell me what you think?


[1] Maria Popova, Neil Gaiman on Why We Read and What Books Do for the Human Experience, Available at: [accessed 8th May 2017]

[2] Marta Bausells (2016), Why we read: authors and readers on the power of literature Available at:, [accessed 8th May 2017]

[3] Ibid.

[4] Vearsa (2015), Why do we read? And what are the benefits? Available at:, [accessed 8th May 2017]

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

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